The White House fiscal year 2015 budget has both good and bad for the produce industry, Washington D.C. observers say.
On one hand, the budget from President Barack Obama aims to increase user fees for the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety oversight activities. On the other, the budget seeks funding increases for school nutrition, research and healthy eating initiatives.
In the $3.9 trillion budget, the White House revealed plans to support legislation to allow the FDA to collect fees for food imports, food facility registration, and inspections to implement the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“The additional resources, estimated at $169 million for the food import program, would support FDA’s food safety efforts to modernize the import system,” according to the budget document for Health and Human Services.
Fees collected for the food facility registration and inspection program — estimated at $60 million — would help the FDA target new and improved activities related to risk analysis required by the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The fiscal year 2015 budget proposal calling for increased food safety user fees is not the first time the idea has been floated, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C..
“We’ve been strongly against that user fee endeavor and we continue to be that way,” Guenther said. “We will talk to Congress to make sure our voice is heard on why we don’t like user fees,” he said. “Food safety is a product of national interest and therefore should be paid for by general funds in the treasury,” he said.
Guenther said United Fresh would like more federal funds devoted for manpower and infrastructure resources at U.S. ports of entry.
“We are seeing more and more delays in terms of both imports and exports moving through the system,” he said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said March 4 that the fiscal year budget for the USDA makes targeted investments in local and regional food systems, specialty crops and organic production.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget also provides $35 million in school equipment grants to help schools serve healthy meals and buy equipment such as salad bars or coolers.
The $35 million funding level for school cafeteria equipment would be the same as was approved for fiscal year 2014, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association.
“Many of us are working to keep that same amount of funding going forward,” she said. “It is not anywhere near what is needed, but if we can keep some consistent amount that is available to schools, that will make a big difference,” she said.
The bill also invests $13 million in the newly authorized Healthy food Financing Initiative, which aims to provide to improved access to affordable, healthy foods in under served areas. The USDA also seeks to reform federal subsidies to crop insurance to generate savings of $14 billion over 10 years.
The federal budget proposal is sharing the spotlight with the implementation of the 2014 farm bill, said Kam Quarles, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based McDermott Will & Emery law firm.
Regarding the farm bill, Quarles said the produce industry is interested in the speed at which the money for citrus in the Specialty Crop Research Initiative is determined. A committee must be formed to help determine where citrus research funds should be spent, he said.
“It is almost like you are creating a research and promotion order,” he said. The farm bill also mandates a study to consider the acceptance of “all forms” in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, including canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables.
Another key farm bill implementation question relates to new conservation compliance mandate for specialty crop insurances. The 2014 farm bill stipulated that specialty crop growers of annually tilled crops — not perennial crops like tree fruit — have to comply with conservation compliance regulations if they buy federal crop insurance.
Guenther said another closely-watched farm bill implementation issue is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s Healthy Incentive Program, which invests $100 million over five years for grants to create incentives for fruits and vegetables purchased by SNAP recipients. Most of the programs in the 2014 farm bill were also in the 2008 farm bill, so Guenther said that makes the work at implementation not as intense as six years ago when the program were brand new.
“The programs are established, the USDA knows how they are run and there is a little bit of history to them,” he said.